JENIN, West Bank, (Reuters) – Hundreds of forces loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas deployed to the northern West Bank city of Jenin on Saturday for a law-and-order campaign meant to show the government is laying the ground for statehood.
In a campaign dubbed “Operation Smile and Hope”, jeeps and buses which commanders said carried up to 600 security men arrived in the city in coordination with Israel. Another 150 men already in Jenin, long a militant bastion, will join them.
Washington, whose efforts for a deal on a Palestinian state this year have shown little sign of progress, sees the Jenin push as a chance for Abbas to prove he can rein in militants — Israel’s main condition for implementing a peace agreement.
The deployment of the forces, some of whom receive U.S.-funded training in Jordan, coincides with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s arrival in the region on Saturday. “This is our country, our land and we will do our jobs regardless of what the Israelis do until we establish our own state,” General Diyab al-Ali, head of national security forces in the West Bank, told reporters in Jenin.
A similar security push launched last year in Nablus was marred by Israeli army raids and travel restrictions, and, while Western officials hope the Jewish state will be more cooperative in Jenin, Ali said he had received no assurances from Israel.
The Israeli government has emphasised that “ultimate security responsibility will remain in Israel’s hands”.
A senior Palestinian security official said the forces would target criminals such as car thieves and had orders to confiscate illegal weapons, but stopped short of explicitly saying the campaign would target militants.
Security men distributed leaflets to local residents on Saturday asking for tips on troublemakers and saying only they had the right to carry guns.
U.S.-backed peace talks were launched in November with the goal of reaching a deal before Bush leaves office in January, but Washington says neither side is doing enough to meet their obligations under a 2003 peace “road map.”
Under the road-map, Israel is meant to halt settlement activity and remove Jewish outposts. The Palestinians are meant to combat militants in the West Bank, where Abbas holds sway, and in the Gaza Strip, which is controlled by Hamas Islamists.
Washington is keen to show security and economic progress in the West Bank before U.S. President George W. Bush visits Israel later this month. The Jenin operation will be accompanied by a series of economic development projects.
Rice arrives on Saturday for meetings with Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. A senior Abbas aide said the two men would also meet on Monday and that the Palestinians expected Israel to produce maps showing the borders of a future state.
The Jenin forces are expected to take up positions on Sunday. The campaign is supposed to last three months.
Israel reoccupied West Bank cities — seven of which had been under Palestinian control after the 1993 Oslo peace accords — after the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising in 2000.
One Palestinian security source in Jenin said Abbas’s forces would be authorised to enter Jenin’s volatile refugee camp and other areas that have been off-limits to Palestinian forces.
Security has improved in Jenin over the last six months as militants from Abbas’s Fatah faction turned in weapons as part of an amnesty programme coordinated with Israel.